When someone is convicted of a crime in the United States, the law provides a range of possible penalties. In most cases, there is some discretion for the judge in terms of the specific penalty, but there are usually minimum and maximum penalties that have some relation to the crime. The American justice system is based on the idea that once you are convicted of a crime, you pay your penalty, and then you get a chance to learn from your mistake and improve your life. But the reality is often something quite different.
For many ex-convicts who have served the legal terms of their punishment, other forms of punishment kick in and the barriers to improving one's life get high enough that many can't overcome them. According to the National Urban League, prisoners are released jobless, even homeless in some cases, and are often required to find work and a home as part of the terms of their release. Failure to live up to those terms can land them back in prison. But it's not only legal to discriminate against those ex-convicts, it's easy.
A widespread practice among employers is to place a simple check box on an application that asks if a potential employee has ever been convicted of a crime (the wording can vary, but the gist is the same). The check box provides no context, doesn't determine if the conviction is relevant to the job and doesn't determine whether or not the applicant would be a good worker or not. And yet, in most of the country, that check box alone is legally sufficient to not hire the applicant. As the National Urban League notes, studies show that answering the question honestly reduces callbacks by 50% when those potential employees are compared to equally qualified applicants who answer "no." When it's so easy to reject ex-convicts for jobs, regardless of their circumstances, it's hard for them to improve their lives. Proponents of what is being called "ban the box" efforts argue this means that ex-convicts and their families face significant economic harm and that harm increases recidivism.
And when you look at who ends up in prison, this story gets much worse. As the National Urban League points out:
Prison is something experienced disproportionately by poor and working people, and by minorities. That’s because, when they make bad choices amid hard circumstances, they’re unable to afford the best lawyers.
“We know that our criminal justice system isn’t just,” says Oregon AFL-CIO spokesperson Elana Guiney. “People who have money can afford to get themselves off the hook.”
And the racial disparity in sentencing is undeniable, Guiney says. Today 1 out of every 106 adult white males is incarcerated, compared to 1 in 36 for Hispanics, and 1 in 15 for blacks.
The Oregon AFL-CIO comments echo the national AFL-CIO's commitment to changing the way we imprison people in the United States. At the federation's national convention in September, the delegates passed a resolution calling for changes to the criminal justice system that oppose a for-profit prison system and protect the rights of correctional workers and inmates. The push for prison privatization is a key factor in the explosion in the prison population and the fact that poor, minority and working-class Americans bear the brunt of the problem:
The private prison industry has lobbied for such laws, as well as stricter incarceration policies for undocumented immigrants. Their business model depends on growing the correctional system for the sake of profit without regard to justice. Private prison corporations even insist on “bed guarantees” in their contracts with states, demanding that 90 percent and even 100 percent of their beds be filled, sometimes for decades....But the facts show that the privatization of correctional facilities and services leads to inhumane conditions for the people who work in prisons and jails, as well as those who are incarcerated....
The impact of mass incarceration can be felt on neighborhoods, families and individuals. The majority of people in the system live in a subset of neighborhoods in the major cities of each state. When people who have been in prison or jail, or on parole or probation, return to civil life, they return to these same neighborhoods. As a result of mass incarceration, these already impoverished neighborhoods have lost thousands of working-age men. For families, relationships are strained, income earners are lost and parents and children are separated. Those who have been released from the correctional system face institutionalized discrimination, unable to break free of the stigma. Various state and local laws and policies institutionalize unfairness, preventing those reintegrated into society from voting, serving on juries, obtaining student loans and receiving public benefits and other services. Returning to neighborhoods long suffering from economic divestment, high unemployment, poor infrastructure and isolation, those re-entering civil society also have few opportunities for advanced education and good jobs.
The Oregon AFL-CIO and local civil rights groups are joining a growing trend to attempt to "ban the box" and prevent employers from asking about criminal records on applications when it isn't relevant to the job in question. According to the National Employment Law Project, 12 states and more than 60 cities and counties already have passed such legislation and numerous other cities and states are considering doing the same. Washington, D.C., looks set to join the list after the District of Columbia Council voted unanimously to ban the box (the mayor still has to sign the measure). In Oregon, the push is in the city of Portland, where more than 40 groups (including labor groups like the Oregon AFL-CIO, Northwest Oregon Labor Council, United Union of Roofers and Waterproofers Local 49 and United Food and Commercial Workers Local 555) are drafting what they call "Fair Chance for All" legislation that would ban the box on initial applications, give prospective employees an opportunity to explain the circumstances of their conviction during the interview process and prevent employers from denying applicants a job solely because of a previous conviction unless their crime was relevant to the job. Furthermore:
Landlords, meanwhile, couldn’t reject an applicant based on a criminal record unless they determine that an applicant poses a threat to other tenants. The ordinance would not override any law that bars people with certain convictions from working in particular occupations, such as caring for children or the elderly, handling financial transactions or commercial driving. To encourage employers and landlords to consider people with criminal records, the ordinance would clear them of any legal liability if they later commit a crime.
If such legislation passes, it would go a long way toward enabling former convicts to improve their lives and become fully participating members of society again.